Take Me to the River: New Orleans


Bounce pioneers Mannie Fresh and Big Freedia and other guests join Galactic on “Act Like You Know.”

(Photo: Take Me To The River: New Orleans)

Anyone who has spent time in New Orleans knows why it is also known as The City That Care Forgot. Between the music and the food and the prevailing spirit of laissez les bons temps rouler, this special place below sea level is tailor-made for epicureans, bon vivants and second-liners. As narrator John Goodman points out at the beginning of Take Me to the River: New Orleans, its European roots, Caribbean and African influences evolved together, giving birth to jazz, funk, rock ’n’ roll, world music and bounce (the Crescent City’s own brand of hip-hop that emerged in the 1990s). All of these musical elements come together in this entertaining two-hour documentary, along with some history lessons about Congo Square, the Mardi Gras Indians, the brass band tradition, Preservation Hall and the birth of funk.

The second film by music producer-director Martin Shore (his first was 2014’s Take Me to the River: Memphis) follows the same intergenerational formula of teaming today’s masters and tomorrow’s innovators in intimate recording sessions, sharing what they know and showing the common ground between them. A vintage black-and-white clip of Irma Thomas on American Bandstand from 1964 singing her torch song “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” is followed by a present day live studio session between her and neo-soul singer Ledisi performing a stirring rendition of Thomas’ 1964 song “Wish Someone Would Care.” It’s one of many goosebumps moments of this rich and often moving documentary. And as Thomas says of their gospel-tinged collaboration, “I feel very comfortable in passing the torch to her.”

Keyboardist and New Orleans native PJ Morton of Grammy Award-winning pop band Maroon 5 combines with the Rebirth Brass Band and rapper Cheeky Blakk on the funky throwdown “New Orleans Girl.”

“It’s about uplifting people,” says tuba ace Philip Frazier, who put the Rebirth Brass together in 1983 when he was still in high school. Drummers Herlin Riley, Shannon Powell, Alvin Ford Jr. (of Trombone Shorty’s Orleans Avenue band), the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s Terence Higgins and Galactic’s Stanton Moore join together for a tambourine-and-percussion jam on the traditional “Lil’ Liza Jane.” And alto saxophonist and educator Big Chief Donald Harrison gives an exegesis on one of the most colorful New Orleans traditions: Mardi Gras Indians tribal culture.

Essentially a documentary on the making of the album Take Me To The River: New Orleans, released as a two-CD set on Petaluma Records, it includes a touching tribute to The Neville Brothers with all four founding members in attendance (keyboardist Art Neville and saxophonist Charles Neville both died in 2018). Mac Rebennack, who passed in 2019, is seen in two intimate duets with Piano Prince of New Orleans Davell Crawford (grandson of Sugarboy Crawford) on profoundly moving versions of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and Sugarboy’s New Orleans anthem “Jock-A-Mo.” Crawford also performs a moving gospel dirge, “We Shall Gather At The River,” set to apocalyptic news footage of the Crescent City under water in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

Bassist Ben Jaffe tells the story of his parents visiting New Orleans for the first time in 1961 and soon after turning an existing art gallery in the heart of the French Quarter into Preservation Hall, a haven for trad-jazz ever since. Alt-rocker Ani DiFranco joins with the cajun music band Lost Bayou Ramblers, the Roots of Music brass band and bluesy guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington for the ultimate tasty gumbo on “Blue Moon Special.” Drummer Johnny Vidacovich joins Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Voices of the Wetlands on The Wild Magnolia’s “(Big Chief Like Plenty Of) Firewater.” And bounce pioneers Mannie Fresh and Big Freedia join Galactic on “Act Like You Know.”

For a spirited finale, rappers Snoop Dogg and G-Eazy spit rapid-fire rhymes on top of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” featuring legendary Stax singer-songwriter William Bell singing the positive refrain, which sums up the joyful spirit of brotherhood that hovers over this entire session. “We’re bringing New Orleans’ influence and vibe to the world of Snoop,” says guitarist Ian Neville, son of Art Neville, nephew of Aaron, Charles and Cyril Neville.

Drummer Herlin Riley talks about a “spiritual connection to that ancestral power,” adding, “We respect our ancestors, we don’t want to lose the story.”

Because of its precarious position below sea level right at the base of the Mississippi River, New Orleans faces the constant threat of being washed away. But culture this deep-seated will never subside. As The Meters bassist George Porter Jr. put it, “The soul is here, the soul will never leave New Orleans. You can knock the people down but they keep getting back up.” DB

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